For three months, the Dellwood Lounge sat with its windows boarded up, a stark reminder of the chaos that followed the death of Michael Brown. The bar wasn't closed—to the right kind of person, at least. Most nights, the place was filled with the clientele typical of a Midwestern dive: white men with hunched shoulders from days spent laboring and nights planted on a barstool; women whose makeup failed to mask deep wrinkles formed by a lifetime inside clouds of cigarette smoke.
Day and night, neon lit the space. The boards over the windows remained even as neighbors exposed the inside of their businesses to sunlight, no longer worried about the looters who roamed briefly following Brown's death in early August. From that chaotic week, when the entire country learned about the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, the owners of the nondescript tavern in neighboring Dellwood preferred their dark, dank, boarded-up cave. The plywood offered protection, even as it made the bar stand out among other storefronts in a small strip mall off Chambers Road.
In any case, the Dellwood Lounge remained unscathed through all the unrest. Maybe the people on the street were just as afraid of what was behind the plywood as the men on their barstools were of those outside. Fear flowed through the boards in a way sunlight never could.
There isn't much news to be found online about the Dellwood Lounge. For months, media outlets around the world ran stories that—in one way or another—reported about the people and businesses of Ferguson preparing for the worst. Somehow, despite all that reporting, the bar was never really explored beyond a picture or two. Maybe no one knocked on the door.
But behind the boards, the bar kept on keeping on—maybe not thriving, but hanging in there. Even as chaos reigned in August, with cops and protesters facing off just down the street for the better part of a week, the Dellwood Lounge kept pouring beers. For thirsty reporters, it couldn't have been better: a bar (and one you could smoke in!) that served booze till 2 AM within walking distance of the broken boulevard the entire world was watching. But other than a few local journalists, I never saw many members of the press inside.
For photographer Bill Kotsatos and me, the place became a refuge from the tear gas and craziness enveloping Ferguson. Cigarette smoke never tasted so good. In August, we got to know the owner—Jim—well enough to be liked, or at least tolerated. He recognized us when we returned two weeks ago, offering the same drunken, slightly uncomfortable banter we'd come to expect.
We could feel a deep disdain for the protesters on the edge of Jim's musings. He never came right out and said it, but Jim and others in the bar were always willing to put it out there: They are running amok, and we are just trying to live our lives, pay our taxes, and wear our pants around our waists. The conversations were always a bit uneasy, but the beer was always cold. The feeling of an us and them was pervasive in the Dellwood Lounge. And while the N-bomb was never dropped, it felt like it could have come at any moment.
"If you have teeth and a job, and want to hear old men talk about n**gers, then this is the bar for you," reads the lone Yelp review for the Dellwood Lounge.
In August, I worried when I invited a friend of mine—a black photojournalist from the area—to join us after the action had died down one night. He walked in with a styrofoam container of takeout from the chicken joint across the street and took his time ordering a beer.
"Do you guys have Heineken?" he asked, looking behind the bar toward taps that read Bud, Miller, and not much else.
"No," the bartender said, offering no suggestions.
I could feel the awkward tension. My friend either didn't notice or—more likely—didn't care.
Despite the bar's innate tension, Bill and I settled back into our routine when we returned in anticipation of the grand jury announcement. The Dellwood was close, it was open, and it was cheap. And we had what it took to get inside: We're white, never caused trouble, and always paid our tab. It was a convenient and relatively harmless match.
At least until late last Monday night.
Jim was standing outside wearing camouflage pants and combat boots when we pulled in just before midnight. On his right hip, a black handgun. He shined a flashlight in our direction—just fucking with us—then smiled.
"You open?" I joked.
"We sure are. You guys go right on in."
Inside was Jim's wife behind the bar, and four men in front of it. CNN was cranked on a large flatscreen. Two men in their 50s or 60s were drunk but ready. They had been waiting for this night.
Bill and I barely had a beer and a shot down when we heard a rapid volley of gunfire. Jim retreated inside the door, peeking outside through a circular hole. We walked toward the door with one of the regulars. The four of us went outside and saw nothing but young men in bandannas and masks. No cops. No National Guard. Just us and them. All around us, Ferguson was burning.
The regular had something in his hand, I noticed, as he walked away from the door and toward a group of possible looters.
"Don't fucking do that," Jim said.
They ran past Bill and me, leaving us standing there wondering why until we heard the explosion, followed immediately by screams. The man had thrown something—a large firework, perhaps—toward the crowd. Bill and I hustled to the bar and closed out. Then more gunfire.
"Jesus, it's getting crazy out there," the bartender said.
Over my shoulder, I heard a familiar clicking and turned to see a man wearing a Vietnam Veteran hat loading an assault rifle. More gunfire outside. The space between outside and inside seemed to be diminishing. It was time for a choice to be made. As more gunfire crackled and the veteran clicked a clip into his rifle, we decided it was better to be outside if the boards came crashing down.
We ran toward the bullets and left the Dellwood Lounge behind.
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